Red Pencil Thursday
Welcome to a “Show and Tell” edition of Red Pencil Thursday. Beginning authors are often admonished to show rather than tell. Showing means putting the characters into a situation where their actions and dialogue allow readers to draw their own conclusions about what sort of person the character is and what’s going on. It’s more engaging because readers have to bring something to the process.
It may surprise you to know that I think there are reasons to use telling sometimes. It’s a quick way to share important information, gloss over the less interesting details and move the story along. But as a general rule, showing is the better choice.
My volunteer today, Rosie Langen, offers us a perfect opportunity to explore the “Showing vs Telling” debate. Please offer your suggestions and encouragement to Rosie in the comment section below. Thanks so much!
Blackhawk, South Dakota
Mia: I’m a historical author, so it’s not unusual for me to put a place and date here. However, as I sneak a peek at what comes next, I notice this is a contemporary story. I defer to the RPT gang. Have any of you seen a setting mentioned at the beginning of contemporaries?
Rosie: This is just an automatic habit for me, and I’ve been doing so since I started writing. I want to try and set the scene. I never paid attention as to whether or not other writers do this.
Annabelle O’Sullivan leaned against the window frame and just stared, watching as the rain fell in large drops from the gray sky. The weather outside reflected her mood, gloomy and dreary. Except for a few cars parked, and some light traffic the streets were empty, as empty as her mood. She crossed her arms over her chest, and closed her eyes but couldn’t stop a silent flow of tears. Leaning over, she grabbed a tissue from the lawyer’s desk.
Mia: The beginning of a story is such a delicate time. You have to introduce your protagonist, set up the premise and hit the ground running. You need to cause questions to form in your readers’ minds. You’ve set a mood, but there’s nothing here to surprise, delight, or intrigue. Annabelle is crying. The weather is lousy. Finally with the mention of lawyer, we get a hint at what might be going on, but the picture is pretty static. I encourage you to think about how you might start with either action or dialogue.
Rosie: I’ve been working with this book for so long, almost three years, that I didn’t even see it that way until you pointed it out to me. I will definitely take another look at the opening scene and see if I can’t give it more of a spark.
The one person that she could always count on, her Great Aunt Gracie, was gone. She bit her lip to keep from crying, but it was trembling and she hoped no one noticed. It was difficult, because she was the woman that had been her solace, and go to person when she had a problem, or simply needed someone to talk to. And as she glanced around the room at her mom, dad, and two cousins from her near safe haven at the window ledge, she tried to stifle a groan. Her mom, as usual, sat there with a neutral, bored look on her face, and her dad stood next to the large mahogany bookcase, impatiently tapping his fingers. The sound grated on her nerves, but she bit her tongue. Her family wasn’t exactly the close-knit, “Brady Bunch type” supportive family that she’d always wished for as a child; and if she could have chosen them for family members, she’d have passed.
Mia: OK, you’ve got a big cast here. Plenty of fodder for showing us how terrible they are. Right now you’re telling, which is not as compelling. Put your characters in motion. Show us why they make Annabelle cry. Start an argument. A fist fight. Something to show us why losing Great Aunt Gracie is such a calamity since this group of folks is what Annabelle is left with.
Rosie: Wonderful advice, Mia, thank you!
Her Aunt Gracie was the only bright and shining star out of the bunch.
She impatiently glanced at her watch, as they were all waiting for one last person to arrive before the reading of the will.
Who the hell could it be?
Mia: A word about the vulgar tongue. As you know if you’ve read my work, I believe there are times when an expletive is exactly what’s needed. Based on the tone of the rest of this, using ‘hell’ here was jarring to me. The only reason to use it is for shock value. Is that needed here? If you think it belongs, let me suggest it be in dialogue instead of narrative.
Rosie: Ironically enough, I didn’t originally use “hell” but when I was going through and revising for RPT, I thought I’d add it in for some reason. Looking back at everything once more, with a fresh pair of eyes, I see how this could be jarring. I’ll most likely end up cutting it, or as you suggested, using it in dialogue.
There was a loud knock at the door, and then it swiftly opened. Her jaw dropped as her ex-husband Kade Hoffman filled the doorway; blowing in like a thundercloud on a steamy July night. He stood like an imposing statue, and for a moment she thought she’d stop breathing.
Mia: Here’s a perfect opportunity for dialogue even if it’s only a surprised “Kade!” coming out of Annabelle’s mouth. I like the blowing in like a thundercloud image. That’s powerful, unpredictable and really shakes things up—just what we all want in a hero! But then you say he’s standing like a statue. I’d rather see him in motion.
Either have her stop breathing or not. Don’t have her think about it. As a side note, let me share that a reader at RT told me one of her pet peeves was the trope about “releasing the breath she didn’t know she was holding.” She thought it made the heroine seem stupid if she didn’t know whether or not she was holding her breath.
Rosie: I will definitely take another look at the last sentence, and will probably end up changing it. It’s good to know how readers feel, and the peeves they have. Invaluable information for sure!
Her mouth parted, and her heart pounded fiercely in her chest. She had to blink a couple times because this had to be a blurred surreal dream. But she knew it wasn’t a dream because her grief was all too real.
So was the strong, fast and incredibly intense physical reaction to him.
Mia: This last sentence is telling. We don’t need it. Especially since you show her reaction so convincingly in the very next sentence.
Rosie: I see how this sentence does not belong now that I’ve had it pointed out. As any writer can relate, we become too “close” to our stories, and can’t see things as well as others. Thanks!
Her skin suddenly felt flushed and warm. After all these years she couldn’t believe he was standing in front of her.
And the minute they locked eyes, her heart stilled. His were dancing with amusement, a hint of shock, and just a touch of desire. They were still as gorgeous as ever, a striking blue-slate grey, albeit with a few light wrinkles around them. His skin a coppery bronze tone, like molten lava. And my goodness, those lips; she could instantly recall how they felt on her mouth. It unnerved her how he wouldn’t stop staring, and the brazen way his eyes were rolling up and down her figure.
Mia: I don’t think I want her heart to still. The fact that he’s here has jumbled things up for her big time. He bothers her. He’s the last person she expected to see. The fact that he’s still hot is great, but how does that make Annabelle feel? Wistful? Upset that there’s no justice in the world since by rights he ought to have gotten fat and lost his hair for what he did to her? Does the way she feels all fluttery over him make her upset with herself? It’s more important that we know how Kade affects her than learn the shade of his tan or the color of his eyes.
I think you have a lot going for you in this premise, Rosie. I encourage you to let your characters talk to each other, think outrageous thoughts and move around in their space. The result will pull us right in.
Rosie: Thanks for the encouragement and advice. I hate to give away a spoiler here, but Annabelle left Kade for reasons learned later on. I love the idea of having her feel “there is no justice in the world,” because he appears to be untouched by time. As if her leaving him didn’t have an affect on him whatsoever. Something along those lines is a great idea. And yes, the way she feels, “all fluttery” as you said, makes her extremely upset with herself. She’s upset because he’s the last person she expects to see, and it turns her world upside down even more than it already is.
This is normally where an RPT critique ends, but Rosie sent me the revised version of her opening. I thought you’d all like to see how she used what she’s learned to strengthen her prose.
Blackhawk, South Dakota
“I wish you would just leave.”
Annabelle O’Sullivan balled the wet, soggy tissue in her hand until it was practically sticking to her skin. And God help her, she couldn’t help the words as they flew out. Since her great Aunt Gracie had passed away, she’d been dreading the reading of the will because it meant being in the same room with her miserable excuse for parents.
“How dare you speak to me that way,” her mom shot back.
“Oh, please,” Annabelle murmured sarcastically.
“Ladies, please.” The salt and pepper haired lawyer tried to diffuse the situation as best he could, using both his hands to let them know to take a seat.
Annabelle retreated back to the window ledge, tossing the offending tissue and grabbing another one. Of all the people to put in her will, Aunt Gracie had put her mom and dad. Why? Why on earth would she leave anything to such miserable people? And then she’d had the nerve to go on and on; about how this was wasting her time and she had more important things to do. Enough was enough, and she couldn’t bite her tongue any longer.
She crossed her arms over her chest, watching as large drops of rain fell from the grey sky. The mood outside reflected her own, and she closed her eyes; not able to help the next silent flow of tears. Aunt Gracie was her solace, and go to person when she had a problem, or simply needed someone to talk to. She was the only bright and shining star of the family. Leaning over, she grabbed another tissue from the lawyer’s desk, discreetly blowing her nose; wishing she could grieve in peace.
Impatiently, she peered at her watch, as they were all waiting for one last person to arrive before the reading of the will.
Who could it be?
There was a loud knock at the door, and then it swiftly opened. Her jaw dropped as her ex-husband Kade Hoffman filled the doorway; blowing in like a thundercloud on a steamy July night. Her mouth parted, and her heart pounded fiercely in her chest. She had to blink a couple times because this had to be a blurred surreal dream. But she knew it wasn’t a dream because her grief was all too real.
He shrugged off his black leather jacket and carelessly tossed it aside; sending water cascading into the wingback chair.
Then he looked up, and his eyes rudely assessed her.
Her skin suddenly felt flushed, and warm. After all these years she couldn’t believe he was standing in front of her.
“Kade,” she breathed.
And as his name passed her lips, she was instantly irritated with herself, wishing she’d stayed silent instead. He didn’t need to know that he affected her, but if his roving eyes were of any indication, it was apparent he knew he was. Damn him. She was usually calm, cool, and very collected.
Bio: Rosie Langenfeld started writing contemporary romance when she was 14, and despite “life” happening, she somehow always came back to it, because she knew it was something she was born to do. She’s lived in Greece, can speak the language fluently, and has visited Europe. She’s currently at work revising her third novel, with a fourth being brainstormed. When she’s not busy writing, she’s a stay-at-home mom, and working as a part time nursing assistant. In her spare time she enjoys reading, shopping, and watching old movies.
Now it’s YOUR turn! What suggestions, advice, encouragement do you have for Rosie?